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FAITH AND EQUALITY

by Whitney Kenerly

Editor’s note: This article published in the Sept. 10 issue about a lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples on religious liberty grounds was accompanied by photos of same-sex couples who are not involved in that lawsuit. The photos may have created a false impression that those couples were involved in the lawsuit described in the article. Two of the couples pictured, including Lennie Gerber and Pearl Berlin, who were named in a caption, are plaintiffs in a separate lawsuit filed by the ACLU that also challenges North Carolina’s marriage ban.

Their church says that they can perform the ceremonies; the state law says that they can’t.

In the fight for marriage equality, several faith communities in the Triad have been leading the way as they fight the Amendment One ban on marriage by claiming that it infringes upon their religious beliefs.

Reverend Julie Peeples is the pastor at the United Church of Christ in Greensboro, and has been particularly outspoken in the fight against Amendment One.

“I am a complete full supporter of marriage equality,” said Peeples.

Peeples has conducted well over a dozen same-sex ceremonies in her sanctuary over the last few years despite the risk that she could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined for doing so.

The reason is that religious ceremonies in North Carolina are not separate from legal marriage. It is illegal in the state to conduct a religious marriage ceremony without issuing a legal marriage license.

Peeples was part of a lawsuit filed two and a half years ago by the United Church of Christ that challenged this statue by arguing that it not only violated the separation of church and state, but also prohibited religious practices that should be protected by the constitution. Peeples and other faith leaders involved in the lawsuit suggested that the state adopt a more European approach to marriage in which the legal and optional religious aspects of the union could be separate.

The group ultimately lost the case. “They said that we could not prove any of us could be harmed by that,” said Peeples.

This summer the issue of marriage equality became even more pressing when the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a ban on same-sex marriage in Virginia. For a while it seemed that the end of Amendment One in North Carolina was imminent, until the Supreme Court issued a stay on the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision.

The Supreme Court is expected to review the decision as early as next month.

Jen Jones, the Director of Communications for Equality NC, feels confident that the Fourth Circuit decision will stand.

“The stay changed the sense of urgency,” said Jones. The advocacy group is now working to educate North Carolinians on what they can expect marriage equality to look like in the state. According to Jones, faith leaders have been integral to their work.

When same-sex marriage does come to North Carolina, it is likely that communities could see a deluge of couples who want to get married as soon as possible. Equality NC has been working with vendors and officiates who are willing to accommodate the ceremonies of same sex couples if the state should experience mass weddings in cities from Asheville to Wilmington.

The concern is that this could also elicit an aggressive response from people against same-sex marriages. In states like Tennessee, LGBT allies offered to protect couples from the onslaught of angry attackers as “marriage sentinels”. Jones hopes that this kind of protection would not be necessary in North Carolina, but acknowledges that the state’s lack of hate crime laws could endanger same-sex couples celebrating their union.

Even though same-sex marriage isn’t legal in North Carolina yet, LGBTQ individuals with deeply held religious beliefs are still having religious weddings in local welcoming congregations. For these couples, the spiritual union and commitment is still important to their partnership.

“It does not have the blessing of the state, and they are denied over a thousand rights that come with legal marriage.” said Peeples. “But I believe firmly that in the eyes of God, they are wed.”

While Peeple’s views are open and known to her congregation, she says that other churches in the area are addressing the issue of same-sex marriage in a variety of ways.

“We’ve got a real range in this area,” said Peeples.

“We’ve got a lot of churches that are very opposed to it, and people within the church who support same-sex marriage keep silent. We’ve got a lot of churches that have never been able to figure out how to talk about this without falling apart, and a lot of the churches are still in the don’t ask, don’t tell phase.”

But there are plenty of welcoming congregations.

The local chapters for PFLAG, a national organization that supports allies and families along with LGBTQ populations, maintain a list of the different faith communities that are open to LGBTQ members and same-sex couples.

Mostly, same-sex couples find out which churches will marry them through word of mouth.

The most incredible things about the lists are the diversity of faiths represented. Congregations range from Baptist to Jewish to Quaker to Unitarian and Pentecostal.

Rabbi Fred Guttman at Temple Emmanuel in Greensboro is another religious leader who has been outspoken in the fight for marriage equality. The synagogue even hosts a regular LGBT Shabbat.

However, this openness can put these faith communities and leaders at risk. Churches who are public about their support for marriage equality are easy targets.

“I still get anonymous mail,” said Peeples. “I even received threats the first time I did a gay wedding in the sanctuary here.”

Still, faith leaders who support same-sex couples continue to do so because they believe that it is exactly within the tenets of their faith.

“I know some people believe that what I am doing is against the Bible, but I think that most people don’t really know what the Bible says,” said Peeples. “I find this in keeping with Gospel values. I believe this is what Jesus would be doing.”

Last summer, Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem released a public statement in support of marriage equality, despite the opposing views held by the broader denomination.

“On the matter of same-sex marriage, Green Street UMC sees injustice in the legal position of state government and the theological position of our denomination. North Carolina prohibits same-sex marriage and all the rights and privileges marriage brings. The Leadership Council has asked that their ministers join others who refuse to sign any State marriage licenses until this right is granted to same-sex couples.”

The statement went on to say that the church would refrain from conducting any marriage ceremonies until the denomination would recognize marriage for all of the congregation’s members.

For Peeples, same-sex ceremonies are no different from the other services she conducts. She has often counseled people who have expressed apprehension about attending or participating in one of her same-sex ceremonies.

“I’ve had people tell me that they were nervous that they wouldn’t know what it would be like,” said Peeples. “But once they become a part of it, it became clear that the couples loved each other and that is was just like any other wedding.”

For these faith leaders, marriage equality involves some of the most important aspects of their belief system: all people are created equal in the eyes of a higher power, a commitment to family, and compassion for those who are suffering.

“You are saying before god and all humanity that your are vowing to love this person in a committed relationship –to make their needs equal to their own – straight people want that, and gay people want that,” said Peeples.

Many same-sex couples have children, and this pulls at the heartstrings of religious groups as much as the idea of treating certain populations like second-class citizens.

Now that it appears that the days of Amendment One are numbered, it is also clear that it will be a long road for North Carolina to fully embrace marriage equality. An overturning of Amendment One would not change attitudes overnight, but the visible support of faith leaders does provide perspective for those who have been traditionally opposed to same-sex marriage for religious reasons. The quiet and prayerful protests of pastors at Moral Mondays have become and iconic image for the changing tide in this state.

During this shift, Equality NC has set its sights on the Triad. According to Jones, four out of the seven Equality NC leaders call Greensboro home, and the group has noticed that the advocacy work done in the Triad is some of the most visible and effective in the state. When same-sex marriage does come to North Carolina, Jones said that we should expect a very large celebration in the Triad.

Peeples cannot wait for the day that she will be able to openly officiate a same sex wedding without the threat of being arrested for a misdemeanor.

“This is not going to fix everything,” said Peeples.

“But to see that pain come to an end and to have their loving, faithful and committed relationships affirmed legally by society – that’s just tremendous.” !

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